Cyanide Poisoning Attributed to Firefighter Heart Attack Deaths

Firefighters deaths due to heart attacks may not be due to bad diets, but from exposure to unavoidable toxins encountered at nearly every fire scene – hydrogen cyanide and carbon monoxide, the toxic twins of smoke. After hundreds of smoke related injuries and deaths every year, the Cyanide Poisoning Treatment Coalition (CPTC) has taken aggressive steps toward educating and training firefighters and the medical community on recognizing the symptoms of cyanide poisoning and treatment therapies that will help save lives.

"If commercial flying had as many civilian fatalities as those relating to smoke and fire, there would be a public revolt," said Rob Schnepp, CPTC president and assistant chief of special operations for the Alameda County Fire Department in California. "The numbers aren't going down, and this tells me that we aren't addressing the problem adequately."

A first step in addressing the devastating effects of cyanide poisoning to firefighters is education and understanding of the enemy that is present on a fire scene 100 percent of the time – smoke. Firefighters and first responders learned more about cyanide poisoning during the launch of To Hell and Back IV: Cyanide Poisoning at FDIC 2009. The program is the first educational program of its kind to teach firefighters about the short- and long-term health effects of cyanide exposure and the deadly impact of cyanide toxicity in today's fire smoke.

"What we have in our homes today is very different from 10 years ago. Today we have laminates, foam cushions, mattresses and bedding made of synthetics and with chemical fire retardants, plastics, acrylics – all which emit hydrogen cyanide during the combustion process," said Shawn Longerich, executive director of the CPTC. "We are very good at recognizing and treating carbon monoxide poisoning, but we have to start recognizing that cyanide poisoning can be an even bigger issue. Once we do that, we can get serious about diagnostic testing through tissue toxicology and antidotal treatment."

To Hell and Back Cyanide was created in partnership by the CPTC and the People's Burn Foundation and uses 3-D visualization to take viewers inside the body to see how hydrogen cyanide and carbon monoxide poisons work together to cause devastating effects. It will be distributed at no cost to the more than 38,000 fire departments across the country in DVD format and also available online.

The CPTC also presented volume two of the SMOKE educational supplement at FDIC that contains five articles related to the chemical composition of cyanide poisoning in smoke and the signs and symptoms of its crippling affect during exposure and SMOKE – An Advanced Perspective specifically written for physicians, toxicologists and pathologists. Other educational articles focus on rehab, proper air management and emergency breathing techniques at the fire scene, the chemical composition of smoke, and the importance of a comprehensive smoke inhalation treatment protocol, including antidotal therapy for emergency medical providers.

"Raising awareness and getting training, combined with new national fire standards and tools to diagnose and treat cyanide and carbon monoxide exposure, should dramatically increase the survivability of firefighters and civilians exposed to these toxins and decrease the harmful long-term health problems that show up in the form of heart disease," said Kevin Reilly, author of the SMOKE article on proper air management at the fire scene and emergency breathing techniques. "Screening per the new standards to identify potentially harmful amounts of hydrogen cyanide and carbon monoxide, with the ability to treat for the toxins, is paramount in successfully combating this serious problem."

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